Commission launches second stage of consultations on sexual harassment

In March, the European Commission launched the second stage of consultations with the European-level social partners on a policy to counter sexual harassment at work. The social partners now have to decide whether or not to launch autonomous negotiations with the aim of drawing up a framework agreement.

On 19 March 1997, the European Commission launched the second stage of consultations with the social partners under the Maastricht Agreement on social policy on the proposal for an EU policy to counter sexual harassment at work. At this second stage, the social partners will be able to choose whether to go down the route of negotiation - leading to a framework agreement which can be given legal validity at the EU level. The alternative would be to submit their views in anticipation of a policy initiative emanating from the Commission.

The Commission's consultation document strongly encourages the social partners to negotiate a framework agreement, but makes it clear that the Commission is willing to proceed if such an agreement cannot be reached. The Commission believes that too little has been achieved in this area by the member states, despite the adoption of a number of voluntary initiatives by the Commission in recent years. These include the 1991 Commission Recommendation on sexual harassment and the annexed Code of Practice, the 1993 handbook on the implementation of the Code, and the 1994 Resolution on the appointment of "confidential counsellors". The consultation document calls upon the social partners to agree on questions such as the definition, prevention and prohibition of sexual harassment.

The first stage of consultations on this issue took place in July 1996. The majority of organisations responding at this stage agreed that sexual harassment was a widespread problem which had to be prevented in the workplace. Commenting on the launch of the second phase of consultation, social affairs commissioner Padraig Flynn pointed to evidence which suggests that at least 30% of all female workers have been subject to sexual harassment at some stage in their working life. So far only Belgium and the Netherlands have set up a comprehensive policy covering all aspects, which the Commission believes necessary to adequately fight the problem.

The social partners now have six weeks to respond to the Commission's letter, during which time they can decide to launch autonomous negotiations on the issue.

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